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Stories behind Words: avoska

www.wordle.netWhenever I go out, I take an avoska with me, just in case I spot something I might want to buy. But first, a little background.

Back in the days of the USSR, when Russia was one of fifteen Soviet Republics, there were frequent shortages of consumer goods. So when a particular item arrived in stock, it would often be sold from a table on the street rather than have a shop flooded with people. The long queue that inevitably grew would be a signal of something worth having. It could be foodstuff, cloth, cleaning materials, even books of poetry. And the queues could be very long indeed.

There was a fixed ritual involved in queuing. You joined the end, asked “Who’s last?”, noted whoever claimed that position, and then you’d say “I’m last”. Your next question would be “What are they selling?”. Note the order here – much more important to make sure no one could sneak in front of you before finding out what the mystery item was. And if you were told “hair brushes”, for example, then you would, if you were me, just resign your place in the queue.

An old Soviet joke goes:

“What are they selling?”
“Oh. Is it good quality Crimplene?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never drunk it.”

Vladimir Sorokin wrote an entire book about a queue that lasted several days and whose inhabitants never knew what awaited them.

But if you never knew when you would come across a queue, and had even less idea what you’d get if you finally got to the front before it ran out, how did you get your purchase home? If it was toilet rolls (much prized and rarely available) and you bought 12 rolls, you might get a free piece of string. And a fine necklace it made, too. But for other things, Russians would whip out a string bag that they always carried with them, on the offchance that they’d stumble upon a queue. The name given to these bags was avoska – from the word avos (авось), which means maybe, perhaps with the particle –ka (-ка) which means what if (among other things). So it’s a “just-in-case” bag, or an “on-the-offchance” bag.

Apparently,  “You wouldn’t come across a person walking around with a string bag in modern Russia. Avoskas have long become a thing of the past. However, as a word it is still used to describe a shabby nylon or plastic bag that only a person with no taste would take out into the street. Avoska has a rather negative meaning. It tends to mean something big, shapeless, untidy, something very much out of place in a person’s looks” according to Russiapedia.

But to me, 1500 miles from Tverskaya Ulitsa or Nevskii Prospekt, the word sums up a spirit of optimism and hope, however forlorn, and while I may well be a person with no taste, I happily take my avoska out into the street.

About Stephen Bullon
Stephen Bullon is the Macmillan Dictionaries Publisher. After doing a Russian degree, which involved five months at Leningrad State University, he spent four years teaching EFL before getting a job as a trainee lexicographer, and has been working in dictionaries for the last 30 years.

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  • Thanks for a great story Stephen. Though my experience is by comparison only miniscule, your piece evoked memories of spending time in cold war East Berlin and going into a ‘fast food’ restaurant in which there was a long wait and just one meal type despite a long list of menu options.

    I too have a string bag btw – so will now feel optimistic every time I use it!

  • Thanks, Kerry. Sounds like East Berlin and Leningrad were twinned. Canteens there also served the same grey slab of something, regardless of whether you asked for the cutlet, the beefsteak, or the schnitzel. And as for “fast food”, I once saw a customer in a restaurant have the temerity to ask the waiter where his main course was as he’d ordered it over half an hour ago. “If you want to eat fast, you should have gone to a self-service place” spat the waiter. “This is a restaurant!”

  • Oh boy, such memories… We also sat in a cafe and had equal temerity to pick up a menu from a nearby table. The waitress marched over and snapped ‘Wo kommt das denn her?!’, snatched it out of my friend’s hand, marched off, and then returned 5 minutes later brandishing the same menu …

  • Lovely story, Stephen. I wonder if there is a name for those free bags made of cotton or some other environmentally friendly fabric that you get given at conferences, trade fairs and the like. In Liverpool recently for IATEFL I found my way to the conference centre simply by following other delegates who were carrying a bag blazoned with the name of a publisher I won’t name as it is a competitor. And I’m very happy to be seen with my free cotton bag from the Chelsea Flower Show. Not to mention my Avoska which is bright pink and will allegedly help to save the turtles. All so much nicer than a plastic carrier bag.

  • Thanks, Liz. The only thing I can think of for those conference bags is goody bag, which defines as “a bag containing small presents given by a company to help advertise a product or service”. But the focus there seems to be on the contents rather than the bag itself.

  • Stephen, Kerry: this indeed brings back sweet memories of ‘banana’ queues and reading menus several pages long (they were books in fact) only to be told by the grumpy waiter that they had one dish available (vegetarians never had much luck)!

  • A different world Kati for sure, I can’t even imagine… I do feel privileged to have a tiny idea of what it was like, although at the time I did feel guilty for being a spectator.

  • Dear Reader

    Covering one more aspect of this word…

    The Grand Russian Phraseology Explanation Dictionary by Maurice Michelssohnen (Большой толково-фразеологический словарь Михельсона): ‘На авось не надейся. Обманула меня надеюшка!’…

    That is ‘Don’t hope to chance. Hopefulness has deceived me’. ‘Надеяться на авоську’ (hope to chance) is the widely used spoken expression that describes the attitude towards life of a lot of people. ‘Надеюшка; авоська’ or diminutive forms of the word ‘надежда; авось’ (Hopefulness; very close to ‘maybe’) are lost in translation. In the case with ‘авоська’ such forms are music to ears for native speakers…

    Kind regards,
    H. Gh.

    P.S. Different ways… just to be on the safe side.

    The Quoting for poems:

    Love English.

    OR Other Quoting: ‘love English’.

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